Anti-mafia reporter on trial for ‘defaming’ Italy’s far-right PM

A trial pitting Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni against investigative journalist Roberto Saviano opened on Tuesday, with the anti-mafia author accused of defamation for an outburst over her stance on migrants.

A defamation trial brought by Italy's now PM against mafia reporter Roberto Saviano began on Tuesday.
A defamation trial brought by Italy's now PM against mafia reporter Roberto Saviano began on Tuesday. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but took office last month after triumphing at the polls on a nationalist campaign that promised to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Saviano, best known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, risks up to three years in prison if convicted.

In a short speech outside the Rome court, he said Meloni’s attack on those who save lives at sea was “inhuman”.

The case dates back to December 2020 when he was asked on a political TV chat show for a comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea in a shipwreck.

The baby, Joseph, had been one of 111 migrants rescued by the Open Arms charity ship, but he died before he could receive medical attention.

In footage shot by rescuers and shown to Saviano on the chat show, the baby’s mother – who has just been pulled from the sea without Joseph – can be heard weeping “Where’s my baby? Help, I lose my baby!”

‘Infamy, inhuman’

A visibly emotional Saviano blasted Meloni and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, which is now part of her coalition government – both of whom have long used anti-migrant rhetoric.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

“I just want to say to Meloni, and Salvini, you bastards! How could you?” Saviano said on the show.

Meloni said in 2019 that charity vessels which rescue migrants “should be sunk”, while Salvini, as interior minister that same year, blocked such vessels from docking.

Salvini joined the criminal proceedings on Tuesday as a civil party seeking damages.

In a speech read out to journalists outside the court after the hearing, Saviano said that he had used the term bastards to highlight the damage done by Meloni and Salvini’s “lies” about charity rescuers.

“How could you be so thoughtless as to isolate, to smear, to transform sea ambulances into pirate ships?” he said.

“Letting people drown isn’t a political opinion. It’s not a political opinion to discredit rescue ambulances, it is infamy, and above all it’s inhuman.”

The judge set the next hearing for December 12.

PEN International, an organisation that defends free speech, sent an open letter to Meloni last week urging her to drop the case.

 ‘Just an insulted woman’

Ahead of the trial Saviano, 43, told AFP it was an “unequal confrontation, decidedly grotesque”, while press freedom groups warned it sent a “chilling message” to journalists.

The author, who has been under police protection since publishing “Gomorrah” due to threats from the Naples “Camorra” mafia, said the tactic was to “intimidate one in order to intimidate 100”.

“It will be even more difficult (for journalists) to report on what is happening” if their words are “put on trial when they criticise power and its inhuman policies,” Saviano said.

Watchdogs say such trials are symbolic of a culture in Italy in which public figures – often politicians – intimidate reporters with repeated lawsuits.

Meloni’s lawyer Luca Libra said Tuesday there was no intention of “intimidating” anyone.

His client was “just a woman who was insulted… on television in front of millions of people”, he said.

Meloni would consider whether or not to withdraw the complaint, Libra added.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, the lowest level in western Europe.

Tuesday’s trial is not the only one Saviano faces for defamation. He was sued in 2018 by Salvini after calling him “Il Ministro della Malavita”, or minister of the criminal underworld.

That trial is set to open in February.

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Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.